SAVAGE RESOLVE: An Interview With Stuntman And Filmmaker Jesse V. Johnson

From left to right: Scott Adkins, Jesse V. Johnson and Marko Zaror on the set of SAVAGE DOG (2017)
Back in the early two-thousandsies, my DVD purchase of director Jesse V. Johnson's Pit Fighter was certainly a blind-buy for me. What attracted me the most, of course, was the appearance of actor and martial artist Dominique Vandenberg on the cover and having especially noticed him delivering a barrage of kicks as the Outworld minion who gets smashed after Sub-Zero gives spectators the infamous "taste of things to come" in the 1995 feature, Mortal Kombat, I pretty much thought I'd give it a shot.

The film's delivery earned a mix of reviews on the now-defunct whereas my own opinion of the film was half-and-half. My own tastes were evolving so I didn't appreicate it as much as I probably would now if I gave it a rewatch...and I'm not just saying all this either with Johnson likely reading this. Given his consistent forward mobility and the work he's been putting out in the last several years however, I do think he's become a better director for all our sakes. 

That said, despite several of his titles coming my way since then (I never got to see Alien Agent and I've been curious for the longest time about The Fifth Commandment), I've only managed to see several of his more recent titles, two of which are now the crux of our newest interview. It's one that I've waited to do since reviews were making the rounds for Savage Dog and I managed to post my own while Johnson went on to put his own trimmings on upcoming actioners such as Accident Man and Triple Threat thereafter.

I guess with Pit Fighter, seeing the film again might actually lend me a different perspective, methinks. While we're on the subject, the film was a terrific in-roads for discussing the star of both of Johnson's aforementioned projects as the new year moves forward and with more movies on the way. It's the kind of conversation I usually look forward to per the m.o. of my site which leans its focus heavily on stunt professionals.

Johnson himself is a stunt performer and all-around professional ever since Schwarzenegger turned down a tri-breasted alien hooker on Mars in Total Recall. Not to mention stuntwork is practically in his blood being the nephew of Vic Armstrong, a man responsible for me spending most of my childhood inebrieating myself with images of Rambo blowing shit up and Van Damme stylishly kicking the crap out of someone.

Indeed, as Morpheus said it best "...The honor is still mine.". As for the cliffhanger ending per Johnson's exit, I'll leave that honor for you fine people to endulge in the comments section. ūüėä

Greetings Jesse and thank you for stopping by to talk to us!
My Pleasure I have enjoyed your writing for some time, Lee, thank you.
You've had several films in the last few years going; You had Savage Dog and then Accident Man and you've kept busy since then with Triple Threat and The Debt Collector in recent months. What keeps you going? Has it all been back-to-back?
I have been blessed with a busy schedule, basically flying from one country to another, the trick has been trying to maintain a focus on each project at it's particular stage of production. It has been a challenge, but I have a brilliant manager Deborah Del Prete who has been instrumental in shepherding my energy.
She developed and was intrinsic in The Debt Collector and to be honest that was one of the most rewarding creative experiences of my career.
Her attention to that project allowed me to focus my energy on Triple Threat and Accident Man which were assignments.
I also produced Legion Max for my friend Dominiquie Vandenberg, which was a hugely ambitious project, we are just going into post production with that one.
Your IMDb page says you got started doing stunts and movies in 1990 with Total Recall. I remember when that movie came on Pay Per View as I desperately wanted to see it in the theater as I had already been accustomed to R-rated action movies by then. I must have been about eight or nine years old (parental guidance and such) and I LOVED it. We even recorded it on VHS and I watched it for days and days next to Robocop and Terminator. Your career has ONLY grown since then, and I would love for you to talk and maybe expand on your early years as a stuntman up to now. How did it all start for you?

Vic Armstrong (left) and Jesse V. Johnson (right)
I was obsessed with joining the Marine Commandos, I did the POC, got a little beat up, spent a little time in the infirmary (stupid new boots), my uncle was in Mexico directing Second Unit on Total Recall and invited me down to try out - the conversation was something akin to: "...You F##### idiot, getting beat up for free, if you want to play soldiers, come and work for me and get paid to stay in a nice hotel..."
This was in the by-gone era of huge stunt-departments, 30-40 guys on payroll for the duration of the movie, so he could hide a 17 year old novice in there, I went down and fell in love with the stunt game.  
The old timers lent me pads and ran me through the do's and don'ts - I was actively training in the martial-arts, dirt-bike riding, gymnastics and sword-work (Iai and fencing), so, it was second-nature and, it was a great group of teachers: Simon Crane (Titanic), Joel Kramer (Heat), Gary Baxley (Dukes of Hazzard), Leon Delaney (Home Alone)...The first pay-check I received ended my interest in serving in the Commandos, which that noble institution should be thankful for! 
What would you say were some of the more signature moments of your stunt career, be it performing or coordinating?
I loved working with coordinator Garrett Warren on Lincoln, Avatar, Beowulf and The Master.  Helping him put together the some of those incredible set pieces, Garrett is now one of the top-tier coordinators and second Unit Directors in Hollywood, but at one time we were respectively the "first" and "second" unit Jake Busey doubles on Starship Troopers - both sporting bleached blonde hair for a year.  
He has coordinated the action on a half dozen of my features, we have had a great time designing action in a number of different countries. I've enjoyed performing stunts on a lot of TV shows and on some of the bigger action movies, it has been a wonderful career, and I was extraordinarily blessed to be able to keep working regularly.    
What led you to directing?
I was directing the moment I returned to the UK after Total Recall, in fact I spent my entire Total recall pay check on a short film called Old Priest, a Treasure of the Sierra Madre style Western.  Shot in North Wales, it won a few awards and led to a short music video directing career in the UK. But, I eventually went back to stunt work to keep the lights turned on. Directing is a difficult business, not so much the actual work of directing, but the surviving in between gigs.
You have maybe seventeen films in your current resumé as director and one of your latest was Savage Dog. I watched it a couple of times and I caught a quote at the end by actor and martial artist Dominique Vandenberg who starred in an earlier film you did called Pit Fighter which I rented years ago on DVD. I understand he served in the French Foreign Legion. You feature legionaire characters in that film including fight choreographer and stuntman, Luke LaFontaine, plays one as well. What fascinates you about the French military, in general, to explore this per the narrative and setting of your film?
I like the old world charm of it, the almost ancient brotherhood of international misfits, warriors without a country type scenario. The romantic nature of it as an institution appeals to me.  No fancy equipment, no special powers, no political correctness - just a group of soldiers who have faith in their loyalty to the order, and to their comrades, nothing else. As we become more disjointed and alien to each other, where text replaces conversation, where an internet avatar replaces an honest face-to-face interaction  we will look to the past, at least I hope we do.  
I also liked the fact that the "good guys" and "bad guys" from the second world war found themselves shoulder to shoulder against a new adversary in Indochina, at that time. There is another movie on that subject matter in there for me - Savage Dog was at its core a film that had to feature a certain number of martial arts fights, I did my best to make it a little different.

We chatted about this at some point way back and I understand your resources on this project were constrained in many areas. I know it must not be the first time you've endured these hurdles as a filmmaker, and piracy certainly doesn't do your field any justice. With a film like Savage Dog, just lay it out for us in terms of what you've had to tackle in this process. Put us in your shoes.
Ha - yes, we did chat about it. Well, the budget was very, very restrictive.  
To put it into perspective without whining like a baby: The office furniture in Vladimir's (Steiner's) office was all from my home office, the swords, firearms, vehicles, and props were from my personal collection.  The 3000 or so movie-blanks were scavenged from my action-directing work on other movies.  The MP44 Scott (Martin) uses, is a 1944 Haenel, worth about $20K that I bought and registered back in my days as a working stuntman; it is far too valuable to ever be used in a movie! [laughs]. There was literally no money in the budget for these items, all of the cast worked favored nations, meaning they all took exactly the same pay-day, which was painfully diminutive, but they did it as a favor to me and Scott.  
We had no money for food some days, and had insect attacks, snakes and wild animals, the crew averaged a diminutive ten people. There was a moment at 3am when the Jeep broke down and we were towing it to the location, when the hitch broke, the next day's call was 6AM. I looked at my dear friend and collaborator Luke Lafontaine, stunt coordinator, sword master, actor and second unit director and basically said, "...I'm done. It's not supposed to be this difficult..." He basically admonished me and straight-up motivated me to keep going - it all worked out fine in the end. 
I thought I had destroyed whatever chances I had for a career with the film, it was so scrappy and disjointed, we had three different cinematographers, the poor wardrobe designer Larae Michaels had been sewing costumes on set, and putting them on the cast, while still sewing, it was manic. So, it was nice when it pleased so many folks.  But I am not sure I will ever do a film so clearly over-ambitious on paper again.
I'm pretty sure there's been some brouhaha from fanboys keen on actress and martial artist JuJu Chan as she doesn't have any fight scenes of her own in this film. Beyond that, her character was a delight to watch on screen and I've only ever heard great things about her from people on a social and professional level. How soon can we expect to see you two on set, if ever?
She is a brilliant performer, she really wanted an "action-scene", and came up with a scenario that could have worked for a little fight scene, but, we were just spread too thin with the schedule.  But yes, I would be honored and lucky to work with her again.
The action gets really gruesome in the second half and I know you're no stranger to R-rated action. I think, however, that this may well be the most violent Scott Adkins film I've ever seen, especially with that gory finale. On a scale of one-to-ten, how hungry was your lead actor? Did craft services not show up? 
HA - well, I read a book called the Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson [Raymond W.Jr. Thorp, Robert Bunker, New Introduction by Nathan E. Bender. Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker], which was made into a sensational film by Sidney Pollack called Jeremiah Johnson, which is a great film in its own right, but I always felt the book was better in many ways. (The way he enacted his revenge on the Indians who killed his family was by eating their livers.) 
When I was developing our film I asked Scott to watch Jeremiah Johnson. It was really a film that had a great influence on me; When faced with a scene where a man takes revenge on another, we really have had our cinematic fill, there isn't much left that hasn't been done. 
I felt there was a place we could go - thankfully Scott was prepared to go there with me. I don't think it tasted particularly good - but then true revenge never really does taste as good as it is supposed to does it?
Adkins first cameoed in Pit Fighter as well. How did you both come to know each other prior to Savage Dog and your newest release, Accident Man?

Daniel Frisch who was friends with Isaac Florentine, a director whose work I love, got us all together. They were great advocates of Scott, and they were also fans of a script I had called the Debt Collector - we met at a Deli in North Hollywood and I said I would love to work with them all and especially Adkins. As it happened I managed to pull my project, Pit Fighter together a few months later, so I called him in for a part. Cut to fifteen years later and a much updated version of The Debt Collectors goes ahead with Scott in the lead. Isaac and Daniel foresaw it all!
You have a striking way of approaching certain films, in that each film has a specific artistic approach for you as a filmmaker and Accident Man is a good example in my view in terms of your style. How would you best describe it for us?
Making the very best of a budget, and trying desperately not to repeat myself.
In your view, what does Accident Man bring to the masses that rivals its competitors?
Accident Man is an exciting movie for me, in terms of production-value, acting, character development, humor and just overall entertainment value. It is not a niche movie in my opinion, but a film that has equal appeal to the average film-goer, as well as the more specialized fight-movie-fan.
This is due in great degree to excellent producers, Scott primarily, but also Craig Baumgarten and Erik Kristzer, who point blankly refused to make a low-budget feeling genre film. They fought tooth and nail to bring in cast and production value that would look bigger than the movie's diminutive budget. They were awesome collaborators and Sony was incredible with us, really generous, Peter Nelson shepherded the film, in a unique way, basically asking what he could do to help and then stepping up to the plate.  He had creative suggestions and technical questions, I think he enjoyed visiting the set in the UK, it was really one of the best experiences I have had. 
Ben Jacques is the English line producer, and to this day I have no idea at all how he pulled off what he did with Accident Man. It defies logic.
Scott Adkins takes Amy Johnston to task in ACCIDENT MAN (2018)

Accident Man has some major ensemble casting to it with Adkins as the lead. How did you go about casting the respective roles? And how challenging is it for you to convene so many heavy-hitters for a project like this one?
As mentioned above, we had incredible producers on this one, guys who simply didn't want to make another genre movie, they went toe-to-toe with the agents to get the best actors we could afford, actors who had a more "critical-mass" than the usual suspects. 
Brett Norensberg at Gersh was a great supporter and helped immensely, he is a bulldog, it was a very cool experience to work with such an established agency.   
I was left with very little work to do in casting, we had the wonderful Gillian Hawser casting supporting roles in the UK, and she brought in an incredible level of actor, Perry Benson, Nick Moran, Ross O'Hennessy, Stephen Donald and Brittany Ashworth all came through her regular casting channels.  
Ray Park was a personal friend and VERY generously flew himself to the UK, stayed with his parents to do the role, and he was brilliant.  We were truly blessed with a well behaved and talented cast. Ray Stevenson, David Paymer, Michael Jai White and Ashley Greene were cast by the awesome Craig Baumgarten in the US, they were sensational to work with and how he managed to convince them to work with me is another story. 
I love actors and my favorite part of directing is working with the cast, for me it is the most creative part.  Shot listing is a lonely process, working with the DP and key grip to make your shots come to life is fun, but it is really working with the cast that I get the most satisfaction from.
Ray (Park) was a surprise for me to see in set pictures of him training with the cast. Who do I have to thank for pointing you in his direction? And I ask because I often miss that man with all his talents!
Ray was a friend of an English stunt-man Theo Kipri (Pirates of the Caribbean)  he thought we should get to know each other, and we hit it off immediately, Ray is a gentleman and a very low-key family-guy, he doesn't buy all that Hollywood BS, he would prefer to be training or hanging with his family, I understand this mind-set and we hit it off.  He is an ex-stuntman, too, and we have all faced similar challenges, moving on from that career, it is a wonderful career, and a great one to have been able to survive in, but, if you have the desire to move on, you must, or you get that chip on your shoulder.  We live once and for a very short time at that - Ray and I agreed on that.
With regard to some of your challenges as a director of low-budget action movies, and in the course of hopefully being able to acquire more supplemental resources and bigger budgets, what needs to change in order for that to succeed for you in your current career trajectory? Because you're still directing and the last few years have impressed me much more with your recent work. What concerns would you like to see acknowledged?

Jesse V. Johnson on the set of THE BEAUTIFUL ONES (2017)

Thank you, Lee - When I started out I basically said yes to any project with money attached, I figured I could fix anything: lead actor who couldn't act, no problem, lead actor who couldn't remember lines, no problem, lead actor who was an investor and had zero experience in front of the camera, I could teach him everything he needed to know, terrible-script, I'd fix it in shooting, bring it on [laughs] - the faith I had in myself was limitless and utterly unfounded in any kind of reality. 
I got spanked a few times quite devastatingly, and sat watching my "blood-sweat and tears" become a "far from perfect" piece of cinema. I realized the hard way that you need a brilliant cast, a committed and talented crew, but most importantly, you cannot fix a bad script in shooting. 
I became a lot more choosy of the scripts that I agreed to. Film is a collaborative and delicate art, everything requires careful and diligent work.  Get the script right, get the casting right, then shoot it carefully, then edit it carefully and cautiously.  
I was way too bold at the start of my career and I just really wanted to keep working, this is a problem - when I slowed down and became more careful, the films got better. Ross McCall, Scott Adkins, these are great collaborators, they work with you on script, on the shot-list, they have an opinion about casting, and the final cut, I love this collaboration. I have producers now whom I trust implicitly now, they work with me, and help where I am weak, and I am weak in many areas.  
I have a sensational cinematographer, Jonathan Hall, I work with, and understand the importance of this - Matthew Lorentz is the best editor I have ever worked with, he's an actor and director himself and is diligent to a fault in his search for perfromance and character, he doesn't care about directorial flourishes, these mean nothing to the audience, he cares about story and character, plot and substance, I have learned so much working with him.
In terms of stunts, you had Dan Styles coordinating the stunt work and your co-star Tim Man encompassing the choreography. How do you and your team envision things in terms of scale and scope of the action on a production such as this one?
Tim is awesome and very, very creative he does his thing, and I try to stay out of his way.  I give him an "in" point and an "out" point - I explain what I'd like story-wise from the fight, and if there are dramatic beats, he comes and gets me, and I literally interrupt their routine to get the dramatic beat, then go back to my unit, while they complete the fight it is collaborative and very positive for me - I really enjoy what he comes up. 
Dan Styles was an excellent physical coordinator, he found very talented performers who were willing to commit to their tasks and do them safely and expertly.  you can't ask for more.  I knew very few people in the Uk, the stunt guys I knew are now established coordinators in their own right and helpful, but, these guys are making six figures a year coordinating Hollywood movies, Dan had to find guys that were at the start of their careers and wanting to make a mark - this is a talent in and of itself.
Johnson on the set of THE BEAUTIFUL ONES (2017)
Speaking of stunts how do you keep in shape? Do you still feel as young as you were on the set of Total Recall?
It is a per requisite of directing movies to be in shape, the hours, and physical challenges involved with location shooting will kill you otherwise.  
Stamina is important, healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise focused on the internal organs and joints, body weight.  When I was performing stunts I would often double actors larger than me, so I'd pack on weight, protein, gym, weights and heavy carb foods, I can get big, but, boy the amount you have to eat, and work, I just don't enjoy carrying that much muscle around.
Will we get to see you fight Adkins in due time?
Scott is very picky about the stunt guys he fights on film, like any experienced performer he knows the stunt man the hero fights can make or break a fight scene - sadly, I don't think I'd be up to his high standard, maybe in a shoot-out.
What are some of your favorite movies? Take us on a journey of your VHS and DVD collections over the years and what still thrills you or makes you laugh or cry and so on.
I am afraid it is rather old fashioned - John Ford, Hawks, Kurosawa, Leone, Fellini, Jean Pierre Melville, Truffaut - I love the Yakuza films of Kinji Fujasaki - I was a film nerd around PT Anderson, and Spielberg, Verhoeven.
All time favorites:
The Seven Samurai.
For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The Man who shot Liberty Valance.
Point Blank.
Only Angels Have Wings.
Bob le Flambeur.
Le Samoura√Į
Are there any impending titles you might be interested in seeing for your own enjoyment?
I try to be careful watching too many contemporary movies, they tend to slip into my subconscious. I find watching archaic, older, less popular movies the best way to work without looking and sounding like everyone else out there.

I'm sure there's only so much you might be willing or able to add on your upcoming films like Triple Threat and The Debt Collector. For now though, what can you offer in terms of status and proximity, and other?
Debt Collector and Triple Threat are both Summer releases - I am very excited to hear what you think of those two, my blood and sweat is in them and they mean a lot in very different ways.I have a couple that are in development that are very exciting - but to talk publicly about future projects is to jinx them.
I just want to say 'thank you' for the extraordinary work you've contributed in all your busy time and effort. Accident Man is especially a high mark for you and I am looking forward to your films and hopeful reunions with cast for greater prospects. Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with our readership?
Thank you!! I desperately want to do an Accident Man sequel, Peter Nelson (Sony) and Scott Adkins have some great ideas - it would be very, very good fun, and I think Mike Fallon will have more adventures worth sharing - we would have to "up" the level of bad guy - can you think of any cool action actors that might give Scott a run for his money?


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